It’s New Year’s Day and Josh Richardson just caught the ball in the left corner. He pauses for a moment to size up Detroit’s Jon Leuer and jabs right. Another beat passes. Richardson jabs right again and this time Leuer freezes up for a split second. Richardson drives baseline. Two hard dribbles and he’s at the rim. Here comes Andre Drummond sizing up the block. Richardson gathers, plants on his right foot and…
Rather than exploding to the rim, Richardson is a leaf in a light wind. Drummond casually blocks his shot out of bounds.
“Every time I jumped off my right leg last year,” Richardson said. “It was a flat.”
About four months earlier, Richardson had been playing with his teammates on the AmericanAirlines Arena practice court when he went up for a dunk. “When I hit the ground, it was like my knee was on fire.” He had partially torn his MCL in his right knee. As it turned out, despite missing training camp and preseason Richardson would only miss the first four regular season games before making his return. But even though he was on the court, he wasn’t the same player as the one who was part of Miami’s late-season surge the year prior. Through his first 28 games, until spraining his left foot in January and missing another 19 games, Richardson was shooting 39.1 percent and making less than half of his shots at the rim.
“Every time I would get in the lane it was kind of like a flashback,” Richardson said. “I really didn’t want to go up too hard. Then when I would try, my knee just wouldn’t want me to.”
Flash forward to these past few weeks and that right knee appears to be much more agreeable.
Time injured isn’t always time wasted. It offers perspective – “You remember that your life doesn’t revolve around basketball only,” Richardson said – and also a little bit of freedom that players don’t always get when they start playing year-round at younger and younger ages. Richardson discovered the dangerous beauty of Amazon Prime, got into fashion by hiring a stylist (he says his style is closer to that of Luol Deng than Russell Westbrook), took a long drive up the California coastline to the tunes of Beach House and of course continued his FIFA rivalry with Justise Winslow.
But nothing replaces a healthy offseason. As he looked more and more like his rookie self down the stretch of Miami’s playoff chase, Richardson took that momentum to Santa Barbara where he spent three and a half weeks at the P3 training facility. With the HEAT in constant communication, Richardson teamed up with P3’s trainers and sports scientists to help strengthen his body, using small exercises and “good strain”, and return ready to work with assistant coach Chris Quinn.
This is where we must digress from what could become the common narrative around Richardson this season. Ask anyone around the team about Richardson and the first thing they’ll point out is that he’s finally healthy. “Just Josh healthy. That’s pretty much it,” Winslow says. There’s no discounting how important that is. But where Richardson goes from here isn’t a rest and rehabilitation story, it’s a player development story. They didn’t rebuild the Six Million Dollar Man to be the same, just as fast and just as strong as before.
That’s why Richardson’s preseason – for as meaningless as preseason numbers can be he was second on the team in his favorite statistic at +3.4 per 100 possessions – should strike such a chord. He might be better.
Powerful dunks were already a part of Richardson’s vocabulary. Paint finishes aren’t always exactly that. There would be times in his first two years, particularly driving left, where he would get into the paint and jump sideways away from contact with the help defender – leaving him with a tough angle and awkward targeting momentum.
“I’ve been working on my off hand during the summer,” Richardson said. “So I might as well start doing it in the game.”
When Dwight Howard visited Miami last week, Richardson was now going over or past the help, maintaining more of a direct line to the rim and showcasing soft touch with his left.
“That’s 10,000 hours and an unbelievable amount of reps, over and over and over,” Erik Spoelstra said.
Ability and skill in the near is coming. We’ve already seen plenty of the far from when Richardson shot 46.1 percent from three in his rookie year. Part of his development this summer concentrated on the middle, both in the post – we haven’t seen much of this yet but with as often as Richardson is matched against smaller guards, we likely will eventually – and off the dribble.
“You see guys like Kobe and Michael who could get to a mid-range shot whenever they wanted,” he said in June. “Michael Jordan was probably the best at that ever. If the game was going a certain way, you could give him the ball and he could find a way to an easy shot. There are not a lot of people in the NBA that can do that. I want to be able a guy who can create his own shot.”
Take a step back and you can see what Richardson, with the help of the team’s staff, is trying to turn himself into: a three-level scorer. Or, as Goran Dragic called it, “the total package”.
Being able to score from different spots on the floor is of course very different from being that dynamic on a consistent, high-usage basis. Richardson has never used more than 16.8 percent of possessions while on the floor with Miami and the jump over 20 is as tough a climb as any for a young player. That’s also not what he’s being asked to do, for now. This is a team full of ballhandlers and playmakers. What could make Richardson so unique right now isn’t just trying to be the proverbial start in his role, but a star in many roles. A chameleon, of sorts.
“Spo uses that phrase all the time, the Swiss Knife,” Dragic said. “Everywhere you’re going to put [Richardson], he’s going to look good and do his job. We feel like he’s can play with starters, he can lead the starters, he can lead the bench team. Even last year at the end of the season he was guarding some fours. He’s really special.”
It was easy to look at Richardson during his rookie-year stint playing off Dragic and Dwyane Wade and see the versatile 3-and-D mold every team in the league is chasing these days. Maybe that’s what he is best at, maybe he’s really, really good at that. And maybe, if he’s playing with the starters this year, that’s mainly what he’s asked to do for chunks of the game. But Spoelstra is nothing if not open minded.
“A young player who is gaining confidence, who has talent, who has put in a lot of work behind the scenes, can really make significant gains during the course of the season in six weeks, three months, five months,” Spoelstra said. “…if they’re dedicated and diligent and gaining confidence, that’s the secret sauce. “A player can explode and they can be something totally different. We want to be open to those possibilities with J-Rich.”
Opportunity doesn’t spring eternal in this league, but with his own springs back and a positive offseason behind him, Richardson has plenty of opportunity ahead.